Saturday, June 22, 2024

As Ads For Sports Betting Proliferate In U.S., Europe Clamps Down Due To Potential Risk Of Compulsive Gambling

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Since a Supreme Court ruling in 2018, legal sports betting has taken off in the U.S. Thirty-six states have passed laws to allow gambling on sports, another eight are considering it and more than 50% of American adults – 146 million people – now live in a legal sports-betting market.

Ads blanket the airwaves and social media sites. Commercials flaunt “risk-free” bets, with former professional sports celebrities promoting gambling companies. While the U.S. advertising blitz is in full swing, many nations in Europe are moving to place strict limits on promotions or abolish gambling ads altogether.

Access to gambling has been facilitated by ubiquitous online apps. Practically all betting nowadays can be done from a person’s smartphone.

The money’s good. There’s record-breaking revenue for the betting companies and a tax revenue windfall for states. And many people, young and old, like to bet on sports.

But experts believe that as gambling options proliferate there’s an enhanced risk of serious gambling problems, including addiction. These experts are looking at data from other countries that have had legal sports betting in place longer than the U.S.

The American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association recognize pathological (or “compulsive”) gambling as a diagnosable mental disorder. The prevalence of this disorder is closely linked to ease of access to gambling options.

The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that the risk of gambling addiction increased 30% between 2018 and 2021. Furthermore, the National Problem Gambling Helpline received 270,000 calls in 2021, a 45% increase from the previous year.

In 2021, the Mayo Clinic estimated that approximately two million U.S. adults met criteria for “severe problem gambling” and another four to six million for “mild or moderate.” While the relative problem gambling rate may be stable, the sheer numbers of people who now bet imply a steadily rising absolute figure.

Comprehensive official estimates for 2022 haven’t been released yet. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the situation will have worsened in 2022 compared to 2021.

The problems appear to disproportionately impact young male adults. Compulsive gambling habits can lead to mounting loans, credit card debt, and pressure to borrow or steal. Worse still, among addiction disorders, gambling has a high suicide attempt rate.

In February of this year, Congressman Paul D. Tonko (D-NY) introduced the Betting on our Future Act, legislation that bans all online and electronic advertising of sports gambling. Tonko asserts that ads pose a particularly dangerous “threat to adolescents and young adults unaware of the risks involved in gambling, and to individuals prone to addiction.”

Currently, Tonko’s bill has no co-sponsors. Furthermore, it may be difficult to get much support in Congress, given the vested interests that states have in tax revenue. Though Tonko’s proposal doesn’t address legal gambling itself, by severely curbing advertising it would have an impact on sales, which in turn would reduce state tax revenue. Many politicians on both sides of the aisle have said that the legalization of gambling provides states with much-needed additional income.

Moreover, critics of this proposed legislation and anything that infringes upon “speech,” argue that sports gambling advertising is protected as a First Amendment right.

This said, there is precedent for banning advertising. In fact, Tonko’s proposal is modeled after the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, which prohibited tobacco advertisements on certain media, beginning in the 1970s.

Perhaps the experiences of other countries with legal gambling offer clues to where the U.S. may be headed. As several examples below show, throughout Europe government authorities are clamping down on gambling ads, sponsorships, and the participation of celebrities in commercial campaigns.

In the U.K., which has a long tradition of legal gambling, mobile betting became legal in 2005. But, very recently, the U.K.’s Committee of Advertising Practice banned betting advertisements that feature (former) sports stars and social media influencers. In addition, betting firms are now prevented from including teams’ official uniforms and stadiums in ad campaigns, as well as showing video game content. These rules apply to broadcast media, online and in print publications, as well as billboards and posters.

Beginning in 2021, members of the Dutch Parliament began calling attention to the potential dangers of gambling addiction, particularly in young men. In the Netherlands, all advertising and sponsoring of online gambling will be prohibited per the first of July 2023. Last year, the Dutch Parliament had already barred (former and present) sports celebrities from taking part in promotions for online betting.

Belgium is cracking down on gambling ads as it seeks to prevent what government officials deem is the “normalization and trivialization of gaming and betting.” The decision came amid what has been called a “tsunami of advertising.” The measures adopted to severely restrict advertising are aimed at reducing the number of people in debt because of gambling.

As many European nations aim to corral gambling promotion, the U.S. appears to be going in the opposite direction. It remains to be seen if there will be a backlash in the U.S., and if proposals, such as the one Representative Tonko is sponsoring, will garner sufficient support for passage.

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